A little more about the Mrs. Jellyby example. Jim Forest, who helps run the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, based in the Netherlands, reflects wisely on how people involved in the peace movement (or any movement, for that matter) can let the cause overtake their basic humanity. Excerpts:
I recall one activist who wasn’t able to attend his daughter’s wedding because he felt obliged to take part in a peace demonstration that day. Another man, more gandhian than Gandhi, also springs to mind. He was left in charge of the Manhattan office of a group called the Committee for Nonviolent Action while the staff was away protesting nuclear weapons. In their absence he nearly starved the office cat to death because he was conscientiously opposed to the domestication of animals. Whatever food that highly domesticated cat found during those austere weeks, it was not from this pacifist’s ideology-governed hand.
I wonder if the Mrs. Jellybys of this world, dedicated in theory to compassion as the bearers of utopian visions, are not at a deeper level driven by rage with those around them, perhaps especially their own families? By taking up a virtuous cause, they can punish their spouses, children and relatives with a clear conscience. After all, they are doing something entirely noble, so much more important than caring for the people they live with or are related to. Their impatience and neglect or abandonment of others around them is a necessary, even God-endorsed price of serving a higher purpose.
Compassion, however much the word is used, does not easily thrive within the climate of movements and causes. In its place one may find a very narrow compassion focused like a spotlight on a carefully selected victim group whose needs legitimate the cause. Perhaps one of the main functions of ideology is to confine the area of compassion, so that, for example, one feels compassion for the baby seal being slaughtered for its fur but not for the man whose family may presently depend upon the fur trade; or compassion for one group of war casualties but not another; or compassion for the desperate mother posed to abort her child but not the unborn child (or vice versa)…
Jim’s point about angry people masking their hatred of others in a Noble Cause reminds of Czeslaw Milosz’s portrait of “Beta” (the writer Tadeusz Borowski) in The Captive Mind, which is Milosz’s study of how four Polish intellectuals he knew personally justified selling out to communist totalitarianism. Milosz writes that Beta, a gifted writer, was an angry nihilist, and found in his hackish service to communism a way to channel his hatred of humanity:
He was young and needed educating, yet he had in him the makings of a real Communist writer. Observing him carefully, the Party discovered in him a rare and precious treasure: true hatred.
Beta was receptive. The more he convinced himself that this was exactly what he was looking for. His hatred was like a torrential river uselessly rushing ahead. What could be simpler than to set it to turning the Party’s gristmills. What a relief: useful hatred, hatred put to the service of society!
Milosz analyzes Beta’s move into doing propaganda journalism for the Party, and how Beta’s rage resulted in his corruption as a thinker and as a writer. Whenever a person like this tempted, in his writing, to put himself in the mind of those with whom he disagrees — this, for the sake of understanding the other’s point of view — “anger comes to his rescue, introducing order into the tangle of interdependencies and releasing him from the obligation to analyze.”
That’s a very astute observation, and accounts for much of the propagandistic commentary on the Left and the Right today. Righteous anger dispenses you from the obligation to seeing things in their complexity, or even basic fairness. Anger at the Enemy is its own justification. This is a version of Jellybyism: passion for the cause absolves one, in one’s own mind, of responsibility for common decency to those around one. We all know someone like that, and maybe more than one person. Maybe we’ve even been that person.